Orhan Pamuk’s ‘My Name is Red’

This novel opens with the murder of a miniaturist in Istanbul late in the sixteenth century that we learn of in the words of the deceased; it is entirely told in the first person, different voices succeeding one another in a technique that is initially confusing but ultimately yields some very clever story telling. From this murder, not the last one, ripples spread that encompass different ways of thinking about art, a strong love interest, and various connections between these two themes. The novel functions as a whodunnit in which there is a villain to be picked (which I failed to do, but have to admit that the evidence provided would allow readers smarted than I to identify the murderer), and a wonderful evocation of Constantinople as it was more than a century after the Turkish conquest.

One of the pleasures of whodunnits is their creation of a small world within which a murder has taken place, one described in great detail which the reader comes in some sense to inhabit. The one we encounter in this novel, that of a group of miniaturists involved in illustrating a book for the Sultan, is in turmoil, for its traditional way of doing things is being challenged, as the forms of art current in the Islamic world are threatened by the ‘Frankish’ art practised by the Venetians, which sought to depict things the way they actually looked. Hence it made use of perspective, placed important things at the centre of a painting, and tried to express reality. Beneath the concerns of the miniaturists lurks an underlying issue: are humans or God at the centre of the world? Similarly, to what extent should an artist seek to hide his own identity, given the danger that an expression of this could threaten God’s status as the sole creator? (The sexist language in the preceding sentence is justified by the content of the novel, although its description of the resourcefulness with which a strong woman operates is fascinating.) And perhaps a parallel issue has sometimes confronted science in the Islamic world, for it can be argued that fear of weakening the overall authority of God by positing laws that would account for the way things happen in the world without reference to the Creator has had a negative impact on its development. 

So the novel does not simply tell a story and invite its readers to relish the strangness of one of the great cities of the world as it was several centuries ago, but to consider serious issues, those of how art and artists operate and fundamental differences between East and West. In 2006 Orhan Pamuk was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

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